THE LOWER DEPTHS, MAXIM GORKY, ARCOLA THEATRE LONDON, 2017
This is a fine production — though Gorky’s play is somewhat uneventful From left, Jack Klaff, Jacob Banser, Doug Rao and Mark Jax in 'The Lower Depths'.
The Arcola’s season commemorating the centenary of the Russian Revolution kicks off with this modern-dress revival of Maxim Gorky’s 1902 play set in a homeless shelter in Nizhny Novgorod, the city which was to bear his name during the Soviet era. That accolade was certainly not bestowed on Gorky for his services to tourism. The denizens of the shelter as depicted here are almost without exception venal, self-deluding, criminal or alcoholic, usually several of these at once. Incompetent card-sharping, theft, hard-edged sexual intrigue and of course vodka are all resorts against the characters’ lacerating self-pity about ending up in such straitened, uncaring circumstances. The odd thing is that this self-pity is largely directionless. Gorky has for some reason decided not to make his social and political position explicit by linking the deprivation in the shelter with goings-on in the outside world. Precious little actually happens, either. A few deaths occur, but only one is in any way dramatically significant and even that is on the perfunctory side. For the most part it’s all about the delineation of the various characters and their interaction with each other. Which is all well and good and in the classic mould of Russian drama, but again, even by those standards, for a whisker under three hours of playing time this is uneventful stuff. The production, however, is top notch. The estimable Helena Kaut-Howson has already shown on a number of occasions (with the likes of Uncle Vanya and Yerma) how adept she is at staging vibrant ensemble classics in the Arcola’s found space (which began life as a paint pigment factory), and this is well up to snuff. Jim Bywater stands out as Luka, a compassionate elderly man who is ultimately driven off and then retrospectively dismissed by the others as a fraud. Jack Klaff, Doug Rao, Simon Scardifield, Tricia Kelly and Ruth Everett are also in the front rank, but Kaut-Howson gets maximum impact in general out of her cast of 18, a size of company almost unheard-of these days in such a venue. It is, though, a matter of luxuriating in the production without getting too caught up in the authorial arguments that aren’t there but you can’t help feeling should be.
Ian Shuttleworth , Financial Times